Posts Tagged ‘botany’

Recently, my Google-fu saved me from making the second-stupidest mistake a lepidopterologist can make (the stupidest, obviously, is confusing a butterfly and a moth). While looking for caterpillars of the cabbage white butterfly (for science), my labmates and I found these guys nomming what turns out to be a species of loosestrife:sawfly larvaSuperficially, it looks a bit like a cabbage white, but it has no business eating that plant! (Why’d you think they call them cabbage whites?!) But it’s actually not even close. It’s the larva of a relative of bees, wasps, and ants—a sawfly, probably Monostegia abdominalis, which specializes on loosestrife*. How can one tell the difference? Count the prolegs – the leg-like stubs behind the “real” legs, which are the first three pairs behind its head. If there are seven or more, it’s a sawfly; if there are five or fewer, it’s a caterpillar (usually). The beast in the picture has eight pairs if you count the anal prolegs, the pair on the last segment.

While their larvae look quite similar, sawflies and butterflies/moths grow up to be quite different. Sawflies burrow underground to pupate, and the pupae tend to look like weirdly frozen adults, while lepidopteran pupae look like blobs, sometimes wrapped in silk, and usually, but by no means exclusively, attached to a branch or other aboveground surface. Adult sawflies look quite wasplike, and they get their names from the females’ sawlike ovipositors, which are literally used to saw into plants so they can lay their eggs inside them.

I noticed many of the sawfly larvae curled up tightly on leaves or on the ground, as in the picture below. (It’s also done quite a number on that leaf! And when I checked back a week later, the patch of loosestrife was completely skeletonized.) They seemed to do this as a defensive posture, with one staying curled up for at least five minutes after I poked it. This behaviour apparently isn’t unique to M. abdominalis, as evidenced by this adorable picture.sawfly larva 2

*Unfortunately, they only seem to eat Lysimachia species, not the evil, despicable, nefarious purple loosestrife, which belongs to a different family.


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Autumn colours V

These are not the autumn colours one expects. We brought in a few potted plants for the winter, and in doing so tricked them into thinking it was spring. New blooms appeared on several plants. Unfortunately, my camera can’t handle indoor lighting at all, so the pictures are a little dark.

Some pink geraniums.

I have no idea what this plant is, but the flowers are pretty cool.

One of our daturas. Look at the spiky seed pods in the background!

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Autumn colours IV

Superstorm Sandy, or whatever we’re calling it now, didn’t quite make it to my neck of the woods, but did send us nearly a week of wind and rain. Even though most of the trees had lost their leaves completely before the bad weather hit, the change resulting from the storm is incredible. It suddenly feels more like the beginning of winter than the end of summer. The mulberry trees (Morus alba, the invasive counterpart to the rare native red mulberry and the same plant that silkworms feed on), which had kept their bright foliage til now, are almost completely stripped, with just a few clumps of yellow leaves withstanding the wind. These leaves can be simple serrated ovals or almost maple-like and lobed.

An interesting note about the naming of trees: many Latin names for trees are feminine but have first declension (i.e. typically masculine) endings. Morus alba looks like it should actually be Morus albus. I’ve never learned the reason for this masculine/feminine superposition.

Mulberries are also dioecious—they have separate male and female plants—and the females bear juicy, black berries in early summer, attracting a ton of birds and leaving purple stains on the ground. The two large mulberries in my yard are popular with winter birds, too, because they’re the closest large trees to my neighbour’s bird feeder. Here is a mourning dove hunkered down in one on the worst day of the storm:

On the first sunny day after the rainy streak, I went back into the woods and flushed a woodcock (Scolopax minor), an unexpected sight (and sound! Their wings whistle!) here. While I used to see them in this area when I was younger, their woodland habitat has been decimated, and I suspect this bird was just stopping by on its migration. Part of me hopes, though, that it’s a resident that’ll breed here next year.

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My dear friend and colleague at Alien Plantation has a post up about the frustrations of vernacular names: when people call the same organism by different terms, or mean different organisms when using a particular name. And one classic example of this frustration, one that I seem to find myself explaining often, is yams versus sweet potatoes.

What’s the difference, you ask?

The orangey (but sometimes yellow or purple) root vegetable that you may have eaten topped with marshmallows, or nibbled in french fry form at a pub with that not particularly good but ubiquitous “chipotle mayo”, is called “sweet potato” in most places, but also “yam” in many parts of North America. (Including where I grew up, so, for the record, I call them yams.) This yam/sweet potato is properly called Ipomoea batatas. (Ipomoea is usually pronounced “eye-poe-MEE-ah”.) Also in the genus Ipomoea are the morning glories, those vines with wide, trumpet-shaped flowers in many gardens and roadsides.

There is another root vegetable commonly called “yam” in English that’s a dietary staple in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These yams belong to several species in the genus Dioscorea, distant relatives of arrowroot. Like Ipomoea tubers, Dioscorea tubers can range in colour from yellowish to purple, but they (at least the cultivated varieties) tend to be much larger and have a thicker, rougher skin. Also like Ipomoea, Dioscorea species are usually vines. However, they have tiny, inconspicuous flowers, often arranged on an inflorescence or flower stem.

Dioscorea and Ipomoea may have some superficial similarities, but they’re only distantly related. One of the fundamental divisions among flowering plants is that between monocots (including grasses, palms, lilies, and onions) and dicots (including most non-coniferous trees, roses, and sunflowers); Dioscorea is a monocot while Ipomoea is a dicot.

If you’re in North America (and if you have the yam/sweet potato problem you almost certainly are), unless you’re at a particularly fancy/”exotic”/”ethnic” grocery store*, anything labelled “yam” or “sweet potato” is almost certainly Ipomoea batatas. (I have seen different varieties of the plant sold as “yam” and “sweet potato” right next to each other in the same store!) So if someone asks you if they’re eating yam fries or sweet potato fries, the answer is “yes”. If you’re at an African or Asian restaurant, though, there may be Dioscorea yams in your meal. One of the more common varieties, ube (Dioscorea alata), is used in the Filipino dessert halo-halo. (Sweet potato rolls and tempura at sushi restaurants in North America are Ipomoea.)

Wikipedia tells me that there’s another tuber, that of Oxalis tuberosa, native to the Andes but also grown elsewhere, that’s called “yam” in New Zealand. The local variety of Ipomoea batatas there is called kumara, so you shouldn’t have too many problems.

Here I present, in convenient, printable, wallet-sized form, a brief guide to yams and sweet potatoes:

*Stop the presses! After I finished the draft of this post I went grocery shopping, and lo and behold there were Dioscorea tubers.

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Autumn colours II

I’ve spent a few more days exploring the local woodlot (and the local idiot teenagers got themselves arrested, so no more competition from them, I hope. Maybe they’ll get community service and have to clean up their pop cans.). The fall colours rapidly progressed and the trees, especially the cottonwoods, are beginning to look bare. Here are some pictures from a few weeks ago, when I decided to try identifying some tree species (probably mostly failed).

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Look how red they are!

Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) a few weeks ago – they’re now wilted and brown.

The leaves of a couple of small ash trees (Fraxinus – hello, Xylem Up!), which dominate the understory in my little forest. The ashes seemed to fall into two types – one with with narrow leaflets on the left, and one with rounder leaflets, particularly the terminal leaflet, on the right. But I gave upon IDing them to species.

Leaves from three lovely oaks (Quercus). The one in the centre is from a black oak; I think the other two are both bur oaks, though there’s a chance the rightmost one is a white oak.

Anyone know what this tree is? It has some compound and some simple leaves, and the compound ones vary in the number of leaflets while the leaflets may or may not have multiple lobes. Some of the compound leaves look like poison ivy!

Or this one? Possibly a chokecherry?

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Autumn colours I

Taking a page from my cats’ book, I alleviated my boredom by spending a morning exploring the woodlot next to my house.

There’s a trail through the forest that’s supposed to be maintained by the city but these days is mainly kept clear by neighbourhood teens on drug deals. It’s strewn with Pepsi cans. Their brand loyalty is impressive.

It’s also strewn with dry leaves and squirrels rustling through them. They stop and chatter in alarm as I walk past.

I stop walking as soon as I spot a bird. It’s just a robin, but robins are lovely. A small flock of them is taking advantage of the round black berries on a tree by the trail. One of them perches close to the ground and whisper-sings, sitting still and bubbling out a just-audible stream of song.

They are joined by a group of female warblers, including Canada, black-throated blue, and mourning. I can’t identify them, except for the Canada, in the moment, but I memorize their features well enough to figure them out at home. A flycatcher of some sort presents more of a problem; it’s directly above me so all I can tell is that it has a yellow belly. It will go unidentified. It happens.

Out at the edge of the forest a tangle of shrubs turns into grassland—someone’s large unmown yard. The leaves on the trees have hardly started to change colours, but here some other plants provide a fall palette. Brilliant purple New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is something I always associate with early autumn. Some other small white asters are blooming, too, but I can’t ID them to species. The sumacs are starting to turn red and orange, and some bright red rose hips add another splash of colour. And, of course, the last of the year’s goldenrod is still a faded, warm yellow.

I mention these plants by name, but there are far more that I don’t know. I’m going to have to find myself some field guides and get reacquainted with them.

On my way home I run into Palu (my cat), who goes all bottle-brushy and runs away as if he’s some sort of wildcat far from civilization. Ungrateful beast.

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It takes a certain strange sort of imagination to put a plant at the centre of a horror story—the sort of imagination that not only sees the twigs brushing a window as tapping fingers, but that also assumes that the tree itself has hands.  In the spirit of my recent review of The Day of the Triffids, here is a brief, undoubtedly incomplete list of horror/weird fiction featuring botanical antagonists. Anyone with additions, please chime in in the comments. (All links are to free full texts when they’re available.)

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

As discussed in my previous post, this is an eerie dystopian book in which most of the population goes blind and is then preyed upon by mobile stinging plants. Subtle, unsettling, and deep.

The Willows – Algernon Blackwood

“It’s the willows themselves humming, because here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that are against us.”

Two friends go on a canoe trip down the Danube. When they stop to camp on a willow-covered island, strange things begin to happen. Things go missing, strange prints appear in the sand, and the canoe is mysteriously damaged. All the while the river is rising, and the tangled willows seem to have a mind of their own. In addition to being charged with suspense, this tale has some lovely descriptions of the riparian scenery.

The Man Whom the Trees Loved – Algernon Blackwood

“It really is extraordinary,” said a Woman who Understood, “that you can make that cypress seem an individual, when in reality all cypresses are so exactly alike.”

This Blackwood guy has a thing for evil trees. In this short story, an artist by the name of Sanderson has a knack for painting trees. And to him, each tree is indeed an individual, and they seem to know that he knows this. They seem to call to him, and he is drawn out into the forest around his house for longer and longer walks. It sounds incredibly cheesy, I know, but it’s phenomenally gripping, as the view shifts from that of the artists who really gets trees to that of his wife, who fears but can’t quite believe that the trees are after her husband.

Specimen 313 – Jeff Strand

It’s basically Little Shop of Horrors with an added love story—featuring not the gardener but the plant. And somehow, that’s adorable.

The Tree – H. P. Lovecraft

An old beekeeper tells the tale of an ancient, gnarled, sinister-looking olive tree, a tale of a competition between two skilled sculptors in ancient Greece. One of them sickens and dies, first instructing his friend and rival to bury olive branches by his head. As the surviving sculptor finishes his statue, an unusual tree grows above his studio. It’s far from HPL’s best work, but unusually understated; one that leaves you scratching your head.

The Tree on the Hill – H. P. Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel

Just your standard dimension-jumping cosmic horror tale. A man sits down under an odd-looking oak and glimpses an evil dimension. His learned friend hastily prevents humanity’s doom at the expense of his sanity. The usual, but not up to HPL’s best—I’ll blame Rimel.

The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien

LotR has some classic nasty vegetation. The Ents, of course, are only horrific to Saruman’s lot, but Fangorn forest has an evil reputation. But when I first read the saga as a young’un, I was really creeped out by the Old Forest outside the Shire, which Frodo et al. have to cross as they flee towards Bree. The menacing trees trip people deliberately and gradually channel the travellers towards the river Withywindle, where they are nearly devoured by a sly old willow.

The Harry Potter series – J. K. Rowling

Vines…vines are great subjects for creepy stories, the way they twine around things and climb up walls. My memory of this is dim, but in Philosopher’s Stone, a trapdoor in Hogwarts hides a Devil’s Snare vine that tightens as its victims struggle. And, of course, the Whomping Willow (again with the willows!), introduced in Chamber of Secrets, has it in for anyone within reach of its bludgeoning boughs.

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